Lee University To Shorten Path To Graduation

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

When can a person be considered educated?  How many courses should someone take before they’ve earned a degree? What makes a Lee University degree distinctive?  These questions were answered by Lee faculty and administrators when they announced a change to the school’s graduation requirements. According to the Cleveland institution, the time to graduation will be reduced by 8 percent beginning fall 2014.

Lee President Paul Conn announced to the student body in a chapel service Sunday the results of a long process of institutional self-examination.  One question started this process: How can Lee reduce the number of credit hours required for a bachelor’s degree without sacrificing the quality or unique nature of the Lee experience? 

“It’s unprecedented for us,” said Vice President for University Relations Jerome Hammond, “but the times call for it. We know families are working harder to get to college. We will work harder to get them through college.”

The university took this step in response to a growing national and state focus on making the bachelor’s degree more accessible.  The national conversation at the highest levels reveals a changing landscape for university policies, encouraging the higher education community to help Americans take their training and education to the next level, said officials.  Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam initiated his Drive to 55 initiative, pursuing an increase in the percentage of Tennesseans holding at least an associate’s degree by 2025.  Lee administrators saw an opportunity to take a positive step in answer to these challenges.

Lee’s curriculum change was developed by the Pathways to Graduation Task Force, chaired by Dr. Carolyn Dirksen, director of Lee’s Center for Teaching Excellence, and composed of faculty and administrators.

“It gave us a wonderful opportunity to reevaluate our programs, focusing on the general core,” said Dr. Debbie Murray, Lee’s vice president for Academic Affairs, “and helped us to reaffirm our core commitments: the religion minor, service learning, and global perspectives, with a liberal arts foundation.”

“We sampled student response through advisors, conducted faculty surveys, and otherwise tried to get input, ideas and solutions,” Dr. Murray said. “That was our priority, to hear everybody.”

The recommendation of the task force was approved early this semester by the Curriculum Committee, Deans Council and the full faculty. Lee’s Board of Directors approved the change in January. 

The current path to graduation at Lee requires no less than 130 credit hours for all of its degree programs.  The most efficient way to create a shorter path was to find a way to trim credit hours from the general education core, the courses all Lee students must take regardless of major.  This is difficult because each of those courses (some 60 hours of general requirements) were put into the core curriculum for a reason, they were considered a “must-have” for any would-be bachelor’s degree candidate, said officials.

The alternative was for each department to find places in the major requirements of each degree program where hours could be cut.  This option poses its own challenge, since the major requirements are also carefully planned to give majors the breadth of knowledge expected from a completed degree program. 

Preserving the distinctive features of each Lee degree added to the challenge the task force faced.  Each graduate completes an array of courses related to Lee’s mission as a Christ-centered university. Lee also requires two additional elements, aside from traditional general education courses for bachelor’s degrees: a service learning component including 80 supervised service hours and a global perspectives component, requiring each student to participate in a study-abroad or other approved cross-cultural experience.  These along with science, math, composition and humanities, all amount to a densely packed core curriculum, which posed a challenge to the committee.  Where can you cut if you need all of it?

“Anytime you talk about cutting courses from somebody’s area, that can be sensitive,” Dr. Murray added. “I feel like we had great cooperation within the faculty. I want to compliment them for arriving at a solution that we all felt good about.”

After much deliberation, the task force found a workable solution and it is being implemented. Six hours will be trimmed out of the general core, and four hours would be eliminated in various ways from each degree program where possible, resulting in over 80 percent of Lee’s bachelor’s degree tracks requiring 120 hours. 

Details of how the change would be enacted were outlined in a recent faculty meeting, in which Lee’s Director of Academic Services Erin Looney described how faculty should approach the advising process.

“Any current student can change from the degree track they are on to the new track,” Ms. Looney said.  “For some of them, this change will not actually help them get through faster.  They have already completed the requirements of the old core.  But many will see that with the new catalog, they can get done with fewer classes, and we are making this new path available to them.”

The change for current students, which will be accomplished by filling out a form designed for the process, is expected to be a boon to many students already attending. 

“I’m anticipating a lot of students changing, but it’s hard to know,” Ms. Looney said. “The form is easy for us to process, so we should be able to handle the load. We will be sending a letter to all students soon to explain the process of changing catalogs if they decide doing so is the best option for their individual situation.” 

Students are still sorting out how the change will affect them.  “It was good news,” said varsity tennis player Krista Good, a freshman from Kennesaw, Ga. “Being an athlete, it will help me to lower the number of courses I have to carry each semester, balancing the spring season schedule, and still stay on track to graduate.” 

Amy Marona, a freshman from Pensacola, Fla., wasn’t sure. “I think it’s good for those whose heart is set on a major,” she said, “but for those who are undecided, I just hope it doesn’t take away time for them to take some general courses and figure out what they want to major in.”

So this spring’s advising period will be a time for each student to have help from faculty advisors in determining if they wish to change tracks. But the focus remains on the young would-be college attenders out there who have yet to get their bachelor’s degree underway. 

“The intended outcome was for students to easily finish a four-year degree within four years or less,” Dr. Murray said. “Students sometimes come in with aspirations and dreams about all they want to study here, about a second major, another emphasis, or adding a minor, and often the practical reality of time and money changes their plans.  Another outcome of this new plan is that for students who want to stay in school longer, who can stay longer, these additional goals are more feasible. Students can do more in a reasonable amount of time.”

It is still unclear if this change will lead to increased interest in Lee’s programs.  For some, the change seems slight, and once the plan goes into effect in fall 2014, incoming students will soon lose the impression that it was any different. 

Mr. Hammond summarized the change, saying, “The university is confident that this revised process maintains that important balance between quality and efficiency.”

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